Desert Island Discs (6) – The Book

The Encyclopædia Britannica is the oldest English-language encyclopaedia still in print. Most people dip into it. On my desert island, I shall have the luxury of reading it from cover to cover.

First published between 1768 and 1771 in Edinburgh, Scotland, the Britannica quickly grew in popularity and size, its third edition (1797) and supplement (1801) together extending to 20 volumes. Its stature helped recruit eminent contributors and the 9th edition (1875–1889) and the 11th edition (1911) are said to be landmarks of scholarship and literary style. Beginning with the 11th edition, the Britannica shortened and simplified articles to broaden its appeal to a North American market and in 1933 the Britannica became the first encyclopaedia to adopt “continuous revision”, a process enhanced by today’s digital technologies.

The current 15th edition has a unique three-part structure: a 12-volume Micropædia of short articles (generally fewer than 750 words), a 17-volume Macropædia of long articles (two to 310 pages) and a single Propædia volume to give a hierarchical outline of knowledge. The Micropædia is meant for quick fact-checking and as a guide to the Macropædia. Readers are advised to study the Propædia outline to understand a subject’s context and to find more detailed articles. The size of the Britannica has remained roughly constant over 70 years, with about 40 million words on half a million topics. Although publication has been based in the United States since 1901, the Britannica has maintained British spelling.

To further their education, many people have devoted themselves to reading the entire Britannica. When Fat′h Ali Shah Qajar became Shah of Persia in 1797, he was given the Britannica’s 3rd edition, which he read from cover to cover. After this feat, he added to his royal titles “Most Formidable Lord and Master of the Encyclopædia Britannica.” English writer George Bernard Shaw claimed to have read the complete 9th edition – except for the science articles – and explorer Richard Evelyn Byrd lugged the Britannica to the South Pole for a five-month stay in 1934. More recently, A.J. Jacobs, an editor at Esquire magazine, read the entire 2002 version of the 15th edition, describing his experiences in his book, The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World (2004).

On my desert island, wherever it is, I shall consider myself in good company reading the 15th edition – so long as it’s on an iPad with a solar panel to recharge it. Oh, and provided there is also a fridge with quite a few cases of decent Pouilly Fumé !

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Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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